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Wednesday, 31 December 2008 16:26

The best of 2008

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Every year about this time, reporters dig out their old files and back editions and start cruising the headlines for the top stories of the year. Lucky for us, there never seems to be shortage of material for the “Year in Review” issue. A year has yet to slip by without a hefty share of humdingers: the funny, the astonishing, the dismaying.

This year we paid homage to the newsmakers of 2008 in our first annual awards edition. Staff put their heads together, chucked convention out the window and came up with a list of our most noteworthy local figures and incidents from the year. For those who made the cut, think of it as a thank you for giving us something to write about. For those who didn’t, there’s always 2009.

Pig in a Poke Award

When Haywood County commissioners bid for and won a 22-acre parcel of land in the Jonathan Creek community that they hoped to turn into a recreation park, there was one small problem — someone else claimed ownership to the same property. A man who had once lived on the property argued that the owner, Lucius Jones, had promised that the property would be signed over to him upon Jones’ death.

What the county first referred to as a “minor cloud” over the title to the land resulted in a months-long legal wrestling match over who actually owned the property. Meanwhile, the county had $1 million riding on the parcel. The county finally settled and secured the land, but it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.

Elephant in the Room Award

No, witnesses in the illegal gambling trial of former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford didn’t name names, but it wasn’t exactly hard to guess who they were referring to when they called out the “Haywood County sheriff” for taking bribes in exchange for allowing the operation of an illegal video poker ring.

No charges have been filed against Sheriff Tom Alexander, who has had little choice but to go on with business as usual despite scrutiny placed on him. The FBI has since subpoenaed records relating to Alexander’s payroll and campaign contributions, as well as the names and numbers of sheriff’s department employees.

Medford was convicted of accepting large payouts in exchange for permitting illegal gambling operations and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Show Me the Money Award

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran sued the county in July over his salary, which is one of the lowest in the state. He’s asking commissioners to nearly double his pay to $80,000 per year, which would put his salary more in line with that earned by the former sheriff.

Bob Ogle, who Cochran succeeded, made upwards of $100,000 per year because of a county-approved practice that supplemented his income. Ogle was given a certain amount of money to feed inmates at the jail, and could pocket whatever he didn’t spend on food.

The county finally ended the sketchy practice on the eve that Cochran took the helm from Ogle. In his lawsuit, Cochran alleges that the county’s move was politically motivated — the county commissioners are Democrats, as was Ogle; while Cochran is a Republican.

Perseverance Award

Local car dealerships hurting from the blow of the national economic downturn are persevering despite the fact that their sales are down as much as 60 percent.

Local auto dealers were hoping Congress would pass the auto bailout to keep the Big Three automakers afloat and prevent bankruptcy.

The local dealership owners and managers say they’ve had to lay off employees in the wake of the crisis, and if the Big Three go bankrupt, their dealerships could close because no one is going to want to purchase a vehicle made by a bankrupt company that can’t service a warranty.

U.S. Rep Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, voted against the bailout.

Up in the Air Award

With a new school board in place and the economic downturn hitting hard, plans to build a new K-4 school in Macon County to replace the old schools of Cowee and Iotla may be on hold.

The previous school board approved the architectural plans for the new school at the 11th hour before the new board, which has four out of five new members, took office in December.

The majority of the new board appears to concur with building the new school, but county commissioners Ronnie Beale and Jim Davis announced at the first meeting of the new school board that there may not be enough money to build the new school proposed to cost $15.2 million.

The county commissioners are scheduled to discuss funding options for the school at their annual retreat Jan. 10 at Southwestern Community College.

Macon Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman said a new K-4 school is needed to replace the old Iotla and Cowee schools that are running out of space.

However, some have said they favor keeping the smaller community schools of Iotla and Cowee because they provide better learning environments.

It’s Still Not Mine Award

Former Haywood Tourism Development Authority Director Scotty Ellis claimed ignorance — twice — after she was found with marijuana in her vehicle on two separate occasions and charged with possession. Both times, Ellis speculated that family members may have left it in her 2008 BMW after riding in the car.

Apparently, that excuse made little difference to the TDA board, which voted for Ellis’ resignation after the second incident. The director of 11 years stepped down Nov. 1.

Sweetest Deal

While the state’s mental health system lay in shambles, the director of a regional mental health agency was having a bit of an easier go. Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health Director Tom McDevitt allegedly paid himself two salaries, gave himself special perks, and changed the date of his hire to dodge taxes on his retirement benefits. McDevitt also paid his wife commission for real estate transactions and used a loophole in the agency’s guidelines to employ his daughter. All the while, McDevitt raked in one of the highest six-figure salaries in the state among those with comparable positions.

McDevitt cemented his authority by convincing his board to approve a five-year contract, an unusual request for a mental health agency director. But he didn’t leave much room for the 30 members of the Smoky Mountain Center board to question his activities — McDevitt attempted to amend the board’s bylaws with a phrase that threatened consequences for speaking negatively about the agency.

After a Smoky Mountain News investigation shed light on some of McDevitt’s activities, the board of the agency took swift action and called for McDevitt’s resignation.

Litmus Test Award

When Jackson County commissioners passed strict mountainside development regulations last year, opponents pledged to get even come election time.

Two of the Jackson County commissioners that helped pass the regulations were up for election this year, but managed to hang on to their seats. Both faced opposition from candidates that expressed an interest in undoing part of the regulations.

If the commissioners election indeed served as a litmus test on voters’ feelings toward the development regs, looks like the Jackson commissioners that hung on to their seats had accurately gauged the public’s proclivity for reigning in laissez-fare mountainside development.

Most Unlikely Criminals

Police called to the scene of a farmers market in downtown Waynesville nearly laughed when they encountered the subjects in question — a group of farmers, some in their 80s, who refused to move their setup to the market’s new location.

For nearly 20 years, the farmers had hawked their wares in the parking lot of Badcock Home Furnishings on Main Street. The owners of Badcock asked the farmers to vacate the lot, but the farmers didn’t want to leave — so police were called to intervene.

The standoff was short-lived and ended when police agreed to let the farmers stay until the end of the day.

The battle over the farmer’s market waged on, however, resulting in the creation of two separate markets in new locations — one run by old-timers who wanted the market to stay exactly the same; the other overseen by a newer group supporting an expanded farmers market.

Main Street Champion

Oh wait, this was a real award, given to SMN’s own Greg Boothroyd by the Downtown Waynesville Association for 2008.

Boothroyd, a staunch supporter who’s worked dilgently to make downtown all it can be, has been a figure on Main Street since the mid-‘90s.

The Downtown Waynesville Association called him an “enthusiastic supporter” of the Main Street vision. Boothroyd sees the value of a vibrant downtown not only to his own business, but to the place where he has chosen to raise his family. Boothroyd is the part-owner and advertising director of The Smoky Mountain News.

“Interacting so closely with downtown merchants, he ingratiated himself into the community by tirelessly promoting the central business district. Always willing to volunteer his time and services, Greg is an invaluable and well respected member of the community and embodies the spirit of a true Main Street Champion for partnering with the DWA and the town in creating a thriving and prosperous central business district,” the DWA said.

Go Greg!

Extreme Makeover Award

A cracking foundation, uneven floors, and a sagging roof covered with water spots — not exactly the building one would expect to be home to one of the most esteemed arts programs in the country.

But that was exactly the case at Haywood Community College, where the Mary Cornwell Production Crafts program and others were housed in out-dated facilities. The college had a laundry list of repair and construction needs totaling $70 million — and made a direct plea to the community for help.

Luckily, voters came through in May by overwhelmingly approving a countywide quarter-cent sales tax that will fund repairs and new construction at the school. College officials celebrated the hard-fought campaign with whoops and cheers on election night.

“I know it was asking a lot of the community. I am so overwhelmingly grateful,” said HCC President Rose Johnson.

Involved Citizens Award

A small group of citizens took to the streets in Cherokee and gathered more than 1,500 signatures on a petition so the public can vote on whether alcohol sales should be allowed at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

Alcohol is banned on the reservation, but the group that circulated the petition — the Petitioners Committee — said alcohol should at least be allowed at the casino to boost profits.

To put the measure on the ballot required 1,534 signatures, which is 25 percent of the registered voters in Cherokee.

The Elections Board has certified 1,536 signatures, which means the election can take place.

Petitioners Committee member Bob Blankenship said the election will probably take place the first Thursday in June during the primary election.

In the summer the chief vetoed a resolution passed by the tribal council that would have allowed the public to vote on whether alcohol should be sold at the casino. However, the chief has promised not to veto the petition, saying it is the will of the people to have the vote.

Bottoms Up Award

In May, restaurant owners in Waynesville raised their shot glasses to voters who passed a referendum allowing the sale of liquor by the drink. The town was one of the last in the western counties to bar the sale of liquor in restaurants. Some opposition to the referendum sprang up, but in the end, the measure passed by a landslide.

Gotcha Award

The Sylva police department busted a dozen restaurants, bars and gas stations during two stings in February and April targeting the sale of alcohol to underage buyers. Restaurant and bar owners complained about tactics used by police officers in the sting operations.

The restaurant owners claimed tactics set-up the businesses with unrealistic scenarios and seem aimed at a game of “gotcha” rather than a desire to promote responsible alcohol sales. They even took their complaints to the town board.

The town board stood behind the police department’s operations. One establishment, however, Heinzelmannchen Brewery, was vindicated after the police dropped the charges after reviewing the audio footage from the case.

Off the Hook Award

Swain County Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones was cleared of any wrong-doing in a voting drive leading up to the 2006 commissioner election.

The N.C. Board of Elections released the findings of its report, and the U.S. Justice Department also dropped its interest in the case.

The investigation looked into whether a voting drive targeting the poor and elderly crossed the line from exceptionally ambitious to improper. The voting drive had targeted trailer parks, low-income senior housing and nursing homes, with Jones helping more than 120 residents vote through the mail.

While the Board of Elections decided there was no intentional wrong-doing, they did find that Jones’ actions were “inconsistent” with the state statute that bars anyone from handling a voter’s mail-in ballot other than the voter or near relative. Jones had taken dozens of these ballots into his possession to mail.

Costly Mistakes Award

The Sylva town commissioners fired their Town Manager Jay Denton after they discovered that he inappropriately invested $2 million in public funds by putting the money into a CD and mutual fund that are not among those allowed by state statute.

The money he inappropriately invested was a portion of the $3.5 million that the town got last year from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund in exchange for placing the 1,100 -acre Fisher Creek Watershed in a conservation agreement.

Denton said his investment decisions were based on getting the best interest rates.

State statute prohibits placing public money in risky investments such as stocks and mutual funds.

Denton said he misinterpreted the statute when deciding how to invest the money. Also, the banker Denton used was his brother-in-law.

Goofiest Scandal

A bizarre scandal that put the Franklin mayor and two town aldermen at odds over slate and doors made headlines in 2008.

The scandal involved former Franklin resident David Whitmire, now of Alaska, taking slate and doors off town property without first asking the town board for permission. Mayor Joe Collins and Assistant Town Manager Mike Decker had granted Whitmire permission to take the slate — allegedly just a few pieces as a memento of the property, because Whitmire grew up at the site.

Whitmire took more than a few pieces, however. He took slate and doors totaling more than $19,000, according to the town. Collins said he didn’t think Whitmire was going to take that much.

Franklin Alderman Bob Scott called for an independent investigation into what exactly transpired when the mayor and Decker allowed Whitmire to take things from the property. An investigation was not conducted, and the case was settled for $5,000.

Babe Ruth Award

Similar to when Babe Ruth called his famous homerun, former Sylva Planning Director Jim Aust publicly called his own resignation after the town board voted down a 68-unit affordable housing development.

After the vote Aust told The Smoky Mountain News he was fed up with the board, adding, “My days are limited here because this is ridiculous.”

Sure enough, Aust resigned about a week later.

Aust, who worked for the city nine years, was furious after the vote, saying the board was not doing anything to bring much-needed affordable housing to Sylva.

Greenwashing Award

Legasus developers claimed their mega-development with 1,700 lots in Jackson County was eco-friendly, but their Tuckasegee neighbors weren’t buying it. The mere thought of so many houses — with their exorbitant prices, not one but two golf courses and fancy entrance gates — was enough to raise the hackles of rural residents who fear their way of life and culture is slipping away.

The development, spanning five separate tracts from Tuckasegee to Cashiers, covers a total of 3,500 acres. Legasus offered an olive branch to locals with round tables and public forums designed to address the community’s concerns, but residents weren’t won over and have continued to fight the development anyway they can.

The development was grandfathered in just before Jackson County passed stringent development regulations last year, but county planners say Legasus’ design would pretty much meet the regulations anyway.

Legasus needs state and federal environmental permits to pull off their golf courses, and will likely need the county to sign off on its master plan again before its all over, since the developers won’t be able to get the lots sold before their grandfathered status expires in a few years.

Unfortunately for Legasus, the economy soured just as they began marketing lots. Relatively few have sold, and the company had to take out various loans to fund operations since lot sales weren’t forth-coming in the numbers they needed.

Creative Financing Award

A man who reportedly has ties to the New York City mob made waves in the Jackson County community of Cashiers with his controversial Big Ridge development.

In the development, 13 property owners allegedly lied about their incomes to obtain $1.5 million construction loans.

SunTrust bank initiated foreclosure on the loans after claiming in court that some of the borrowers weren’t advancing with their construction, which would leave the bank upside down on the loan at the end of the day if there wasn’t a completed house. Further, the incomes provide by the borrowers were inaccurate, Sun Trust claimed.

Domenic Rabuffo, the project manger, pleaded guilty to a $49 million mortgage fraud years ago and served a brief prison sentence. His business partner, Irwin “Fat Man” Schiff, was gunned down in a 1987 mob hit in Manhattan.

Whoops Award

A cell company accidentally increased the height of an existing cell tower in Haywood County without the necessary permits. When it eventually applied for its permits, it failed to mention the work had already been done.

The tower belongs to Crown Castle, a company that builds cell towers on behalf of Verizon Wireless.

County commissioners were in a quandary over how to proceed when hit with the situation. They said their decision of whether to grant a variance and allow for the taller towers won’t be swayed by the fact the company already did the work. If they vote “no,” the company will have to undo it, they said.

Groundhog Award

Keith Presnell once more challenged Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, for his state senate seat and once again lost.

Presnell has now run for the seat four times. Queen won three of the four, with Presnell, who hails from Yancey County, prevailing only once in 2004. Queen calls that isolated win a “coat-tails fluke,” corresponding with the same year President Bush won re-election by a large margin in the mountains, helping the other candidates like Presnell who happened to be on the Republican ticket.

Republicans better get cracking, with barely a year left to figure out who they will put up against Queen in 2010.

Hard Feelings Award

Dillsboro was dealt a huge economic blow this summer when the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad pulled out of town after 20 years.

Dillsboro businesses heavily depended on the train, which brought in an estimated 60,000 tourists annually.

The decision to pull the train out of Dillsboro and put the whole operation in Bryson City was based on economics and had nothing to do with a lawsuit that was filed by the train against the town, according to GSMRR officials.

Nonetheless, there were still clearly hard feelings between the train and the town over the lawsuit.

Town Alderman Jim Cabe said the town was unwilling to settle the lawsuit because it was not at fault in the incident, which involved a train car being damaged when it drove over a resurfaced roadway.

On Second Thought We Better Not Award

Politicians in Macon and Jackson counties tested the bounds of the Open Meetings Law in 2008, but reversed their actions after called into question by the media.

Macon County commissioners were frequently recessing their meetings rather than formally adjourning. When a meeting is recessed rather than adjourned, not as much public notice is required for the next meeting, which made it more difficult to keep track of when the board was meeting to discuss public business.

An N.C. Press Association attorney said the commissioners were not violating the law by recessing their meetings but said it was not a good practice.

Macon had recessed at least 17 meetings in the first 11 months of the year, far more than other counties.

Macon County commissioners said so many meetings were being recessed because there was too much business to take up in a single meeting. Now rather than recessing, the commissioners in December voted to have two meetings a month rather than one.

In another case testing the Open Meetings Law, the N.C. Department of Transportation called a private meeting between DOT officials and local government officials to discuss the controversial N.C. 107 Connector, or the Southern Loop, in Jackson County.

The Smoky Mountain News polled Jackson County commissioners to find out if they planned on attending. The majority said they did, until the newspaper informed them that it would be a violation of the Open Meetings Law should a majority of the board attend a private meeting where public business would be discussed.

After the commissioners were informed of the possible violation only one of the five commissioners attended.

Consolation Prize

If Swain County school teachers aren’t thrilled about their $400 Christmas bonus — the first the system has ever given — it’s not that they’re ungrateful. It’s just hard to get too excited about $400 when teachers in surrounding counties routinely get two to three times that amount.

Swain is one of the last remaining school districts in the state that doesn’t pay a teacher supplement. In contrast, most school districts, like Haywood, kick in 4.5 to 5 percent of the teacher’s salary; larger districts, such as Buncombe, can offer more than 10 percent.

The lack of a supplement makes recruiting and retaining teachers difficult. Those who do opt to stay in Swain sometimes struggle to get by — one teacher interviewed by the Smoky Mountain News holds down two additional jobs to make ends meet.

Though Swain’s status as one of the state’s poorest counties could make carving out a supplement difficult, the Swain County school board has also never formally asked the county commissioners to provide the money for a supplement.

Told You So Award

When a long-time team of emergency room doctors spoke out against the way former CEO David Rice was running Haywood Regional Medical Center, Rice retaliated by running them off. The doctors were sent packing on New Year’s Day two years ago.

The departed ER doctors complained that Rice ran the hospital with little regard for the doctors and nurses that made it tick. They also alleged that he controlled the hospital board, sequestering them from information that ran counter to his own propaganda.

The warnings of the ER doctors came to fruition this year when the walls crumbled around Rice’s administration. The hospital lost its Medicare status along with most private insurers, effectively shutting down the hospital for four months.

When consultants came in to get the hospital back in order, they began with a top-to-bottom assessment of what went wrong. The assessment cited “significant leadership failing” and likened the leadership style to a “bunker mentality” and “Lone Ranger approach.”

It verified what the ER doctors had said 14 months before.

“Physician-hospital integration was actively discouraged. Medical staff had been kept at arms length. Access to the hospital board was strictly controlled so people were not permitted to talk to board members without going through the CEO without threat of termination,” the consultants wrote in a now infamous report.

If that weren’t enough vindication, the hospital isn’t satisfied with the corporate physician staffing outfit brought in to replace the old ER docs. The hospital plans to replace them in coming months.

‘Heck of a Job, Brownie’ Award

Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, President Bush praised then-FEMA director Michael Brown for doing a “heck of a job,” a compliment that soon proved far from the truth. This award goes to the Haywood Regional Medical Center board, which showed unfaltering support for their CEO David Rice until the bitter end.

Over a period of three years, the hospital board overlooked a sudden departure of all its orthopedists, the mass resignation of its anesthesiologists, a revolving door of nurses that left the hospital short-staffed more often than not, the ousting of the ER doctors, the ire of the medical community for not being listened to and a loss of confidence among the community — until the Medicare crisis landed on its doorstep and Rice resigned.

Clean Sweep Award

The loss of Medicare and Medicaid, a crisis that rocked Haywood Regional Medical Center, led to a drastic change in the hospital’s leadership. Members of the former hospital administration resigned one by one: CEO David Rice; hospital board chairman Nancy Freeman; Chief Nursing Officer Shirley Harris; vice president of professional services Eileen Lipham; as well as the vice president of quality and performance oversight and the department head of human resources.

The hospital board also saw its slate wiped clean. Three members resigned, including Chairman Nancy Freeman; Bob Browning and Jim Stevens. Two members opted not to reapply when their seats were up. Board members have been quickly replaced. There were so many community members interested in the seats — 37 applied — that Haywood County commissioners added two additional positions, bringing the total number of board seats to 10.

Comeback of the Year

When Haywood Regional Medical Center lost its ability to bill for Medicare and Medicaid Feb. 24 following a failed inspection, the situation appeared dire. The hospital lost its Medicare and Medicaid status, along with a host of private insurers, effectively shutting down most operations within the hospital and plummeting the number of patients to single digits.

Meanwhile, hospital leadership was in turmoil as the CEO and members of the hospital administration and board resigned. It took four months before HRMC regained its federal healthcare funding, and has taken even longer to begin earning back the community’s trust in the facility.

Yet slowly but surely, HRMC has rebuilt itself from the ground up. The departure of former CEO David Rice helped to erase the culture of fear and secrecy that existed at the hospital, and new CEO Mike Poore appears ready and willing to lead HRMC down its new and improved path. New hospital board members are keeping a careful eye on the administration.

Strength in Numbers Award

Haywood Regional Medical Center and WestCare announced their plans to join forces, not only with each other but with a larger health care system. Today’s health care climate makes it increasingly hard for smaller, rural hospitals to go it alone, they said.

Joining forces with one another will make them more attractive, improving their negotiating power with the larger entities.

WestCare and Haywood Regional hope to partner with either Novant of Winston-Salem or Carolina Medical Center of Charlotte, or to a lesser extent Mission in Asheville.

Both Haywood and WestCare were pursuing an affiliation with a larger entity regardless of the other. If each went with a different entity, the two could get locked in a battle that would fragment health care for the region rather than make it stronger. Thus the decision to join up.

Boomerang Award

In May, Haywood County commissioners fired the firm they had hired to renovate the county’s historic courthouse — Salisbury-based KMD Contractors — for failing to meet timelines and causing the project to fall months behind schedule. The bonding company overseeing the project set out on a search for a new contracting firm, and settled on ... KMD Contractors. All but one commissioner voted to re-hire the firm to complete the project. All the while, the county has been involved in a series of litigations against KMD, even as the company continues to work on the courthouse.

Class Warfare Award

The rich versus the poor became an issue in the wealthy Macon County community of Highlands in August when the town board voted down providing water and sewer services to an affordable housing development that many blue-collar workers said was needed.

Highlands, full of million-dollar plus homes, has no place for the workers who serve the elite to live, some said. Because the town board voted down providing water and sewer, the 48-unit development could not be built.

Town board members who voted down the development said they did so because they didn’t think it was right to provide water and sewer to people who live outside the town limits and don’t pay town taxes. Board members said there were still some people in the town limits without those services.

Some in the community felt the town board’s true reason for not approving water and sewer for the development was to keep low income people out of town and said the water and sewer issue was just a “guise.”

Voter Pride Award

Voter turnout reached all-time highs in the November presidential election, but two who showed unique pride in their right to vote were Macon County inmates Christopher O’Bitts and Phillip Nix.

O’Bitts, who was jailed on a probation violation, and Nix on a DUI charge, said just because they were jailed did not mean their voices did not matter.

Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland said all inmates were given the opportunity to vote. Both inmates told The Smoky Mountain News they supported Obama.

Comeback Kids Award

Haywood County commissioners Mark Swanger and Kevin Ensley were voted out of their seats two years ago, and weren’t about to lose again. Both recaptured commissioner seats in the November election, beating out two-term commissioner Mary Ann Enloe, who expressed shock at the surprise upset. Enloe is the only woman to ever hold a Haywood County commissioner seat. Ensley, though, is also a rare breed — he’s only the third Republican to be elected commissioner.

Look for Enloe to come back swinging in the next election.

Best Timing

Haywood County Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick’s appointment as board chairman couldn’t have come at a better time. Typically viewed as the busiest commissioner, with a full-time job and family, Kirkpatrick says his schedule isn’t nearly what it used to be. He’s a real estate lawyer, and the economic downturn means he’s found himself with plenty of time to kill.

David and Goliath Award

When Jackson County first took on Duke Energy five years ago, the public cheered on their leaders for standing up to the mega-corporation for their rights. The county hoped to exact fair compensation from Duke for the numerous and profitable hydropower dams straddling the Tuckasegee River, which belongs to the public after all, and also hoped to save the Dillsboro dam.

But this year, Jackson County commissioners finally began to show signs of fatigue. One commissioner, Tom Massie, has repeatedly called on the county to throw in the towel, saying they “fought the good fight” but it’s time to cut their losses.

Jackson County’s attorney against Duke keeps pitching one last strategy the county should try. But Jackson continues to lose round after round and has nearly exhausted its appeals on both the federal and state level. The longer the battle goes the more desperate the attempts sound. One includes condemning the dam and seizing it from Duke, while another includes withholding the county permits Duke needs to tear down the dam.

The Try, Try Again Award

Balsam Mountain Preserve sought permits to rebuild the earthen dam that collapsed at its golf course the previous year. The permits weren’t immediately forthcoming, however, with state and federal environmental agencies reluctant to sign off on them.

Not only had the dam failed the first go around, but the Balsam Mountain Preserve had changed the lay-out of the dam without permission. The dam held back an irrigation pond for the golf course.

The fate of a new permit for the dam is still up in the air.

Most Likely to Make You Feel Lazy

Swain County school administrator Steve Claxton, 52, proved that age is nothing but a number by riding his bicycle across the country this summer. Claxton’s speed on the trip matched that of someone half his age — he biked 4,000 miles in 35 days. And he did so just three and a half years after he broke seven vertebrae in his back and wondered whether he would ever ride again.

Claxton undertook the journey in honor of his late mother, Phyllis, a career Swain County schoolteacher. The $58,000 he raised from those who sponsored his ride will go into a scholarship fund set up for Swain County students interested in pursuing a career in the teaching profession.

Most Ambitious

Of course, no one wants to see crime rates increase, but it sure would be nice to fill Swain County’s new jail. The 109-bed facility is more than double the size of the previous jail, which usually held around 50 inmates a day. The county is shelling out nearly half a million dollars a year to pay back loans it took out to construct the new jail. County officials are hinging hopes on money made by housing federal inmates and prisoners from surrounding counties to help cover costs. Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones said the county “desperately” needs to fill the facility — county coffers are running dangerously low, and there’s question of how the county will continue to pay for the facility without some additional cash flow.

Most Persistent

Supporters of the North Shore Road in Swain County don’t give up easily. Their battle to get the government to rebuild a road flooded when the Fontana Dam was built has spanned nearly 70 years — and supporters insist it’s not over yet, even though a new agreement was signed last year in which all the original parties agreed to provide Swain County with a $52 million cash settlement in lieu of building the road.

North Shore Road supporters, many of them descendants of families relocated when the Fontana Dam was constructed, refuse to give up their fight. They frequently make impassioned speeches at county commissioner meetings, and it’s not uncommon to see a man well into his 80s get choked up when talking about the Road.

Though many hoped the signing of a new agreement would bring an end to the saga, a resolution has been slow to come by. Negotiations for the settlement got underway, but stalled earlier this year. So far, Swain County has yet to see a penny of the windfall settlement.

Tortoise Award

Waynesville Town Planner Paul Benson takes the mantra “slow and steady wins the race” to heart. A review of the town’s award-winning land use plan has moved at a snail’s pace due to Benson’s failure to choose a consultant to oversee the process. As a result, the review — which, according to a proposed six-month timeline, should have been finished by now — has yet to begin. Meanwhile, some critics say the longer the town waits to start the review process, businesses that don’t want to comply with the standards will pass over Waynesville.

This isn’t the first time Benson hasn’t been up to speed. Grants for two projects currently underway — the Russ Avenue Corridor Study and Pedestrian Plan — sat untouched for two years before Benson finally got around to using them.

Ghandi Award

Jackson County schoolteacher Doug Ward became a hero in the eyes of many when he was fired for refusing to administer a No Child Left Behind standardized test to his students with disabilities.

Ward said the test wasn’t a fair way to measure the progress his students had made during the school year. After teaching lessons about the Civil Rights movement and standing up in the face of inequality, Ward felt he had little choice but to practice what he had preached and become a conscientious objector.

Unfortunately, the board of education also felt they had little choice but to punish Ward for his actions, and voted unanimously to terminate his contract.

In the end, Ward said he had no regrets about standing up for what he believed in.

“It was the right thing to do, and it worked out how it was supposed to,” he said.

Heartbreak Hotel Award

When the national foreclosure crisis struck in the fall, many local people were affected, including Ricky Stephens who granted an interview to The Smoky Mountain News to talk about what it’s like to lose a home to the bank.

Stephens of Sylva lost the home he had lived in for 26 years when health problems put him and his wife out of work and prevented them from making mortgage payments. He and his wife and their 12-year-old son were forced to moved out of their home to an apartment in Dillsboro.

Stephens hated to lose the home, saying he wanted to leave it to his son.

Studied to Death Award

In 2008, Western North Carolinians saw a slew of initiatives aimed at regional and community planning. The Mountain Landscapes Initiative was the largest, involving hundreds of people around the region, months of study and thousands of dollars. Among other projects: the USDA-sponsored farmland values project; the Haywood Growth Readiness Roundtable, sponsored by Haywood Waterways; task force on Mountain Ridge and Steep Slope Protection orchestrated by a Land of the Sky Regional Council, and an invitation sent out by Haywood County commissioners offering to help communities with their own planning process.

The final product produced by most planning initiatives was similar — a list of recommendations of how to protect and preserve the region’s natural and cultural resources. Though an extensive compilation of information is beneficial, the goals of some of the efforts seemed to overlap.

The power to enact many of the recommendations rests with local governments. But in the mountains — where a sentiment of private property rights still lingers and the real estate and development lobby are powerful — planning decisions are political and officials have been slow to act.

Hard Times Award

WestCare Medical Center in the fall announced that it lost $3.2 million between June and August due to economic conditions. Patients put off procedures when possible, while a greater number who did seek medical care were unable to pay their bill. And more were filing under Medicare and Medicaid, which bring in less money for hospitals than private insurance.

The hospital’s CEO Mark Leonard said the hospital has tentatively planned on reducing its workforce by 90 out of its 1,000 full-time employees over 18 months.

“These losses are a result of lower revenue and higher operating expenses,” Leonard stated in a memo to hospital employees.

Leonard said the hospital planned on laying off the first 30 employees by Jan. 15.

Disturbing the Natives Award

Construction on a much-needed sewer plant in the Jackson County community of Whittier was ceased when the contractor disobeyed orders not to drive heavy equipment over a site deemed archaeologically significant because it is believed to hold Cherokee Indian artifacts.

After work was stopped, the involved parties — Jackson County, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Whittier Sanitary District — worked out an agreement on how work would be resumed.

The agreement stated that a permanent fence would be put around the archaeological site, and that if any artifacts were discovered during construction that the tribe would be notified immediately.

Jackson County Manager Ken Westmoreland said the contractor, Good Water of Greenville, S.C., drove over the archaeological site because something happened to the road that accessed the sewer project. Westmoreland said the contractor was taking a “short cut.”

Hot Potato Award

Since Swain County’s first-ever development regulation — a subdivision ordinance dealing primarily with road widths — was tabled late last year, it’s turned into a hot potato that county commissioners refuse to touch.

The ordinance faced an outpouring of opposition from those in the real estate and construction industry, which prompted the commissioners’ decision to table it. They promised that the planning board would reconvene to modify the ordinance the following month. A year later, such a meeting still hasn’t happened — and officials continue to shrug off the responsibility.

County Manager Kevin King says the planning board doesn’t have the power to revisit the ordinance. But just who does have the power isn’t clear. Commissioner David Monteith says it’s up to the commissioner chairman, Glenn Jones. Jones, however, says he has no plans to bring up the ordinance, but if somebody else wants to bring it up, that’s fine with him.

Holding the Bag Award

To all the developers in Western North Carolina with lots for sale ...

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